Kentucky Governor Exploring State Weed Pardons

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announced on Thursday that he has directed his administration to explore issuing pardons for all convictions of simple marijuana possession. Beshear’s announcement follows President Joseph Biden’s move last week to pardon all federal convictions for low-level weed possession and a call for governors to take similar action at the state level.

Beshear noted that despite polls showing that 90% of Kentuckians support legalizing the medical use of cannabis, the state legislature failed to pass a medical marijuana legalization bill earlier this year. He added that lawmakers’ refusal to approve the measure has left “those suffering from Alzheimer’s, ALS, cancer, severe and chronic pain, epilepsy and seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions without access to medical cannabis for relief.”

The governor said that he was not notified in advance that Biden would announce the federal pardons for marijuana possession and ask the states to follow suit. Beshear added that while there are differences between state and federal law, he has asked the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) for more information on how many Kentuckians could be eligible for a state pardon for a conviction of low-level cannabis possession.

“Let me be clear, I agree that no one should be in jail simply because of possession of marijuana,” Beshear said in a statement from the governor’s office on Thursday. “I know the vast majority of Kentuckians demand medical cannabis be legalized, and I am committed to keeping Kentuckians updated as we review the information and make plans to move forward.”

Biden Announces Federal Cannabis Pardons

Beshear’s announcement that he would consider pardons for marijuana possession follows Biden’s announcement last week that he would take similar action for all federal felony convictions for simple marijuana possession. Under the plan, about 6,500 federal convictions would be pardoned, while thousands more convictions in the District of Columbia would also be eligible for relief.

“As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” the president said in a statement on October 6. “Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”

At a press briefing, Beshear said that he agreed with the president’s views. He also noted that state and federal law differ, adding that marijuana possession is a misdemeanor in the Bluegrass State, rather than a felony.

“Nobody should ever go to jail for simple possession of marijuana and right now, in Kentucky, they don’t,” said Beshear.

But the governor noted that even misdemeanor convictions carry the collateral consequences mentioned by Biden.

“Having a misdemeanor on your record isn’t a small thing,” Beshear said at his weekly news conference. “We want to know how many people this would apply to. So we’ve asked AOC … to get us that information.”

Kentucky Program Offers Expungement

Beshear added that Kentucky currently has a program to issue expungements for simple marijuana possession convictions.

“You can get this removed from your record completely — meaning if you go through the process, it wouldn’t even show up on a search,” said Beshear. “A pardon is different. A pardon would show up on that search, if not expunged. Then, you would provide proof of your pardon.”

But the governor said that he is still exploring pardons because they might help some people, saying “I’m actively considering what he’s asked, even though it doesn’t have the same result of pardoning felonies that it does under the federal system.”

“I’m just trying to set out the context that things are a little different here in Kentucky, but nonetheless, some people may have a hard time getting a job because of a misdemeanor simple possession conviction,” he added.

Beshear said that his administration would review the president’s request and determine how it could be best implemented in Kentucky.

“We are taking this information into consideration and hope to have new steps to announce here in the near future,” the governor said.

Panel Finds Strong Support For Legalizing Medical Marijuana

Biden’s announcement of federal pardons came only two days after Beshear reported that a panel he formed to advise him on cannabis reform in Kentucky has received overwhelming support for the legalization of medical marijuana. The governor said that the Team Kentucky Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee found that many Kentuckians who suffer from chronic medical conditions are not being helped by traditional painkillers and fear the possibility of addiction posed by opioids. Kentucky is one of 10 states that permit patients to use low-THC cannabis oil, but more potent marijuana products are still prohibited by law.

“Polling suggests 90% of Kentucky adults support legalizing medical cannabis. Our team traveled the state to talk directly to Kentuckians, and they found our people do indeed overwhelmingly support it,” Beshear said in a statement from the governor’s office on September 30. “I appreciate the work of those who participated, and I am taking this information into consideration as I analyze what steps I can take to legalize medical cannabis for those suffering from chronic, debilitating medical conditions.”

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University of Kentucky Opens New Cannabis Research Center

The Bluegrass State’s flagship university is getting some green. In an announcement on Wednesday, the University of Kentucky heralded the opening of “a new center that will advance research on the medical use of cannabis.”

The “UK Cannabis Center,” as it is known, “will conduct research on the health effects of cannabis, including its risks and benefits when used to treat certain medical conditions.”

The center is the result of a bill passed by Kentucky lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Andy Beshear earlier this year.

“The legislature is interested in having us explore the conditions for which medical cannabis might be useful, as well as the most effective dosing and route of administration for each condition,” said Dr. Shanna Babalonis, who will serve as director of the UK Cannabis Center.

The announcement on Wednesday said that Babalonis is “an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Science and a cannabis researcher at CDAR, is increasingly recognized as a leader in the cannabis field and an expert on the topic of medical cannabinoids,” boasting “three active National Institutes of Health grants, totaling nearly $3.5 million, aimed at examining cannabis-opioid interactions, cannabis effects in those with opioid use disorder and the effects of cannabis on simulated driving performance.”

“The new center will allow us to expand our clinical research, particularly focusing on medical conditions that may be helped by medical cannabis,” Babalonis said in the announcement.

The bill that established the UK Cannabis Center was passed in the closing days of the Kentucky legislative session in April. Beshear, a Democrat, used a line-item veto in his signing of the legislation, striking out certain parts of the bill that he said would “limit the purpose of the center and dictate who the president of the University of Kentucky should consider appointing to the advisory board after giving the president of the university sole appointing power.”

Beshear said earlier this year that he was entertaining the idea of using executive action to legalize medical cannabis in the state.

“We’re going to explore that,” Beshear said in April. “It’s something that we will look at. Its time has certainly come.”

That didn’t sit right with members of legislature, including Kentucky state Senate President Robert Stivers.

“The public should be concerned with a governor who thinks he can change statute by executive order,” Stivers said in a statement in April. “He simply can’t legalize medical marijuana by executive order; you can’t supersede a statute by executive order because it’s a Constitutional separation of powers violation.”

The bill that established the UK Cannabis Center was viewed as a compromise by Republicans in the state Senate who were not ready to fully legalize medical cannabis treatment. A bill legalizing medical cannabis passed out of the Kentucky state House of Representatives in March, but the measure was never brought to a vote in the state Senate.

In the announcement on Wednesday, the University of Kentucky said that the bill “also requires UK to apply to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for a license to grow and cultivate cannabis,” and that if approved, “the center will be able to conduct agricultural research pertaining to optimal growing conditions.”

According to the announcement, “UK President Eli Capilouto recently appointed a multidisciplinary team of UK faculty members that will oversee the research center’s work and finances,” and the “12-member board includes an executive or steering committee that will work with Babalonis to establish the center’s research goals and agenda and make key financial decisions, and an advisory board to help guide and provide feedback on the center’s progress and overall direction.”

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Kentucky Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee Meets

The Team Kentucky Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee met for the first time on Monday to discuss their responsibilities and two upcoming town hall meetings.

The first town hall meeting is set for July 6, in Pikeville, Kentucky. The meeting will be in the University of Pikeville’s Health Professions Education Building.

The second town hall meeting is slated for July 19 at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet in Frankfort.

Both are scheduled to run 90 minutes. Two additional meetings will be scheduled at a later date.

The committee will travel around the state, gathering opinions on the medical cannabis issue and provide feedback to the governor’s office.

Gov. Andy Beshear created the committee last week through an executive order. The 17-member board is composed of attorneys, university professors, medical cannabis advocates, members of law enforcement, and health care professionals.

Secretary of the Public Protection Cabinet Ray Perry and Secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Kerry Harvey were named co-chairs of the panel.

Members will serve on the committee for two years, according to the executive order.

“We start with a committee of people that really bring a wide array of experience and expertise to the project,” Harvey told The Courier Journal. “You have medical people, pharmacy people, you have people that know a lot about substance abuse disorders, and you have people with very deep experience in law enforcement and prosecution. The committee itself can provide a great deal of useful information.”

The goal of the group, according to Harvey and Beshear’s office, is to listen to the people of Kentucky and bring their perspectives on medical cannabis back to the governor and other officials.

“Our plan is to go to different parts of the state and really just to have open town hall meetings so that anyone who is interested or concerned about this issue can provide the committee and ultimately the governor with not only their point of view, but their experience,” Harvey said.

For those unable to attend the town hall meetings, Beshear’s office created a website for users to submit their thoughts on medical cannabis.

In his executive order, Beshear said, “Allowing Kentuckians diagnosed with certain medical conditions and receiving palliative care to cultivate, purchase, possess and/or use medical cannabis would improve the quality of their lives and may help reduce abuse of other more dangerous and addictive medications, such as opioids.”

Overdose deaths in Kentucky have risen dramatically in recent years—2,250 deaths were reported in 2021, as stated by the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, compared to 1,316 in 2019.

“It would also improve Kentucky’s economy by bringing new jobs and businesses to the Commonwealth, as well as supporting Kentucky farmers,” Beshear continued.

A total of 38 other states have already legalized medical cannabis, including Ohio—which, earlier this year, reported that its medical cannabis program had generated about $725 million in revenue.

Earlier attempts to legalize medical cannabis in Kentucky occurred in 2020 and 2022.

In 2020, a bill led by Rep. Jason Nemes (R) received 65 votes in the House chamber but stalled in the Senate due to a lack of support by Republican members and a shortened session due to COVID-19.

In March of this year, the Kentucky House of Representatives voted 59-34 to pass a medical cannabis bill, HB 136. Senate leadership stalled this effort soon thereafter.

In April, Beshear approved legislation to establish a cannabis research center at the University of Kentucky. According to HB 604, the new facility will be tasked with planning and conducting research “to advance the study of the use of cannabis and cannabis derivatives for the treatment of certain medical conditions and diseases.”

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Kentucky Governor Says He May Use Executive Order if Medical Cannabis Bill Dies

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday that he is considering what he could do to rescue a proposal to legalize medical cannabis that is currently languishing in the state’s general assembly.

The first term Democrat was asked by reporters “if he could potentially issue an executive order making medical marijuana accessible if the bill dies,” the Associated Press reported.

“We’re going to explore that,” Beshear said, as quoted by the news outlet. “It’s something that we will look at. Its time has certainly come.”

Beshear’s comments came nearly a month after the Kentucky House of Representatives easily passed legislation that would legalize medical cannabis in the state for qualified patients.

That measure, sponsored by Republican state House Rep. Jason Nemes, would permit physicians to recommend cannabis treatment to patients with a host of qualifying conditions, such as cancer, chronic pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and nausea.

The bill passed the House, where the GOP holds a large majority, by a vote of 59-34.

In his efforts to build support for the bill, Nemes spoke of his experiences talking to patients and doctors.

“I’ll never forget this mother leaning forward and touching my hand. She told me what it meant to her child, and they all went around the room and said what it meant to them,” Nemes said. “And I thought, here’s good people, real good people, and I disagree with them. So, I was starting to question it. I talked to physicians, did a lot of research on the issue.”

But the bill has gone nowhere in the state Senate, which is also dominated by Republicans. It is a near identical scenario to 2020, when the Kentucky state House passed a medical cannabis bill only for it to be stymied in the state Senate.

Robert Stivers, the president of the Kentucky state Senate, was skeptical and dismissive of the bill from the start, saying that the legislature was running out of time to tackle legislation of that significance.

According to the Louisville Courier Journal, Stivers “remains opposed to legalizing medical marijuana, saying that while he’s seen research showing marijuana could have a positive effect on patients with spasticity, nausea and joint inflammation, he says those studies had small sample sizes and duration — while he’s seen others showing negative side effects.”

More recently, Stivers has expressed doubt that lawmakers have enough time to get the bill over the line, with the assembly’s 60-day session winding down.

On Thursday, Stivers said “it would be difficult” to pass the bill when lawmakers return for the final two days of the legislative session next week, according to the Associated Press.

The Associated Press reported that Stivers has “touted another pending bill that would create a cannabis research center at the University of Kentucky to study the use of cannabis to treat certain medical conditions.”

“Most definitely, I think there is that desire to help individuals,” Stivers said, as quoted by the Associated Press. “But with any drug, I think you need to have the full-blown studies.”

“That would give us the impetus to come back maybe within a year and say this is what marijuana could be used for or not be used for,” Stivers added, according to the Associated Press.

Enter Beshear, who has been forceful in his advocacy for legalizing medical cannabis in Kentucky.

While suggesting on Thursday that he may resort to executive action on the matter, Beshear once again urged lawmakers to deliver a bill to his desk.

“You see people from every part of every spectrum that are in favor of this,” Beshear said, as quoted by the Associated Press.

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